“Enough” A Sermon by Rev’d Wendy Morecroft

Evensong Lent 5B -18 March 2018 based on Numbers 21.4-9, Psalm 39, Mark 15.21-41


May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

You may be wondering why we have been reading so much about snakes lately. They both fascinate and scare me. Andrew and I have lived in a bushland setting for over 30 years and we annually have at least one close encounter with a snake.

You may well ask why God sent snakes to the Israelites, what’s with the bronze serpent, and why in John 3:14, does Jesus refer to his death as being like this “lifting up” of the serpent?

Tonight’s reading from Numbers reads something like the snake scene from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets where young Harry bravely kills the gigantic king of the serpents with the help of his guardian phoenix.

In Numbers, we find the Israelites in the wilderness having fled from Egypt where they were being used and abused as slaves. Their guardian leader Moses, is doing his best to provide food and water, but they are still grumbling about the lack of food, his leadership and questioning God’s sovereignty. If we let our imagination run wild,

it sounds as though God in his frustration is hurling poisonous snakes at the people in order that they would be bitten and die.

The Hebrew “translation “poisonous” serpents is from the Hebrew word seraphim, which comes from the verb meaning “to burn”. These snakes are not simply a natural disaster. They are divine agents of punishment and potential healing. The seraph is mentioned in Isaiah 14:29 and 30:6-7 as a flying serpent.”[1] [There were pictures of them in the temple above God’s throne just like we have images of them around us here in our Cathedral.]

Bronze serpents have been found throughout the ancient Near East, providing ample parallels for interpreting”[2] our OT reading tonight. “The association of the seraphim with Yahweh’s throne most likely derives from Egyptian religion, where the raised and swollen head of the cobra is often depicted on the pharaoh’s headdress as a protective goddess, Wadjyt. Her function was to spit fiery venom onto the enemies of the king. Thus, in Egypt the cobra’s function was twofold: to protect and to destroy.”[3]

There is an obvious cultic background to the Numbers story of which we are not fully aware, but the Israelites probably knew it well from their time in Egypt.

When Moses takes the Israelites complaints about the snakes to God, God gives magical powers to a bronze serpent on a pole that whoever looks at it would live.

We could dismiss this story as mere fantasy but it’s important to ask: “What’s really going on here”? What deep spiritual truth underlies this story? What does it teach us about who God is, and how we should live our lives?

The first thing to notice is that the “lifting up” of the bronze serpent is what draws us up out of our sin, and through God’s grace, we are healed.

But I’d like to explore with you, the idea that the snakes are a metaphor for the people. Certainly, in tonight’s Gospel we heard those who taunted Jesus as he hung on the cross, hissing at him. Could it be that the people who complain and bring into question the leadership of Moses and the sovereignty of God, are the snakes? Are they the ones who are killing others? They would at least be killing the fullness of life of the community.

God’s solution is to raise a bronze snake on a pole that whoever looks upon it will be cured. This is consistent with the mythology of the Greek God Asclepius and the logo for Medic Alert where the snake on a pole is a sign of healing. Have you ever marvelled at how we use snake venom to make anti-venom or why we would use a snake a sign of healing?

Is this story really about raising awareness? By putting a bronze snake on a pole is God through Moses making people realise that their negativity and complaining, is killing the life of the community? Does this “lifting up” help the Israelites to face the fact that they are the problem? Is it through their repentance that God saves them?

On Thursday, I read a CNN news story that gave me a modern context for this story. The title of the article is “A generation raised on gun violence sends a loud message to adults: Enough”. It read:Thousands of students across the United States walked out of class Wednesday to demand stricter gun laws in a historic show of political solidarity that was part tribute and part protest.

From Maine to California, the 17-minute walkout — one minute for each of the 17 people killed at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School one month ago — began around 10 a.m. in each time zone. Some participants read the names of each victim; others stood in silence around sets of empty chairs. At Granada Hills Charter High School in Los Angeles, students lay down on a football field to spell out the walkout’s rallying cry: “Enough.””[4]

I am suggesting that these students are metaphorically lifting up automatic weapons on a pole, just as Moses lifted up a bronze serpent on a pole. The image of that which is destroying life, draws us to repentance. Surely God is at work in this uprising.

In the wise words of one of my lecturers: “The stories from tonight’s readings together with John 3:14 invite us to remember the events leading to Christ’s death where he becomes the constant source of our salvation and where he graces us with his faithfulness. God sees us not in the light of our disobedience, but in the light of Christ’s obedience and faithfulness. Our salvation from the serpents is Christ lifted up for our sake. Christ draws us and uplifts us to himself and into his own union and communion with the Father. Amen.

[1] Thomas B. Dozeman, The New Interpreter’s Bible – a Commentary in Twelve Volumes, ed. Michael E. Lawrence, VII vols., vol. II, Nib (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998).

[2] Ibid., 164.

[3] Ibid.

[4] https://edition.cnn.com/2018/03/14/us/national-school-walkout-gun-violence-protests/index.html